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A Foodie Vegas Get-Away (or, Do You Want a Martini With That?)

I am a lucky girl. Very lucky. I have a beautiful home, a good job, cute kids (well, they are cute most of the time), and the best hubby in the world.  And he has a pretty amazing sister.  So when I hatched my brilliant plan of a few days away in Viva Las Vegas without the gremlins, er, kidlets, the Auntie took to my charms and cunning and agreed to watch them for us.

I *love* Vegas, especially in August. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t gamble.  I don’t go clubbing.  And I don’t necessarily have the need to melt under 112 degree heat.  But I do enjoy the lack of crowds in the late summer, the awesome resorts with their cool pools, the wacky people watching, and some of the most amazing food you can shake a wooden skewer at.

We normally take the prince and princess with us to the Big Bad Sin City.  There is plenty of G-rated fun to be had, and they are FITs (foodies-in-training).  Thankfully, they also know how to sit nicely and eat nicely at the nice places.  But there are some rules when traveling with kids — you gotta feed and water them regularly lest they ‘splode on you.  And you gotta sleep them, or they will ‘splode, wilt or just collapse; the latter results in the Olympic sport of kidlet-carrying.  Activities need to be semi-scheduled and, alas, they have outgrown naptime (although we adults have not!).

This trip, then, would be the anti-kid trip:  eat when *we* want, sleep when *we* want — and way into the morning hours! — and just enjoy each others’ company without cutting food, tying shoes, or wiping bottoms. (TMI?!)

Thai One On

Our long drive to Vegas ended in a semi-seedy strip mall off the strip.  Ok, so it is more downtrodden than seedy; as a resident of Master-Planned-SunnyVille, which has a certain look and feel everywhere you go, this place wouldn’t fit with our CC&Rs.   But it doesn’t matter what the place looks like on the outside — I’m going for the food.  Lotus of Siam, baby!!

About a year ago, before we embarked on our annual Vegas trip, I did some research to find unusual and out of the way restaurants and other good eats in Vegas.   Sure, we have our favorites, but we knew we were barely skimming the surface and it’s always fun to find a new gem.  When I stumbled upon Lotus’ entry in a blog, I was intrigued.  I am a HUGE fan of Asian cuisine of all sorts, so Thai food sounded good to me!  And as I read on (as any good OCD researcher would do), I grew more and more impressed (and hungry!).  Not only did it seem to be one of the best Thai places in Vegas, but professional food critics were saying it could be among the best in the country!  To boot,  it wasn’t break-the-bank-Vegas-expensive.  Perfecto!  Our first visit didn’t disappoint — the food was mouth-watering delish.

We arrived about 2:00 pm, just thirty minutes before they close for lunch for the day.  Nevertheless, they welcomed us in like old family.  The service is definitely good, but not the ultra-attentiveness you might find in some of the chichi places on the strip.  Cordial, respectful, happy to help, but not overbearing.  Inside, the decor is… well, cheesy at best.  The dark-colored carpet with its wild-colored flowers creeps up the wall, which is quite odd.  Lots of partitions throughout the place make it seem small and cramped, and the old wallpaper is reminiscent of your grandma’s (or great grandma’s) old apartment.  Tacky yellowed-glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling; and the mid-room linoleumed-square “designed” to house the lunch buffet carts add to the musty decor.  Nevertheless, it seems clean enough, and I’m not hiring them to decorate my house.  I want their food.

Hubby ordered a cold beer, but after our long journey, I was satisfied with a glass of iced tap water.  We started with Koong Sarong, or Prawn in Blanket.  Essentially, it’s prawn wrapped in wonton skins and deep fried.  They serve it with a plum-type sauce; it’s sweet not but not overly so.  The shrimp were plump, tender and well-cooked; the wrappers were crisp and a great addition to the shrimp.  They were fried to perfection and didn’t taste greasy.

For our main dish, hubby knew I needed my carb-fix, and we both were very excited about a fish dish. We finally selected Drunken Noodles with Sea Bass:  “Stir-fried flat rice noodles topped with deep fried sea bass and spicy chili mint basil garlic sauce serve on a bed of green [sic].”  They use a 1 to 10 scale to describe your preferred level of spice.  Hubby and I like our heat, but not to the point that it detracts from the flavor.  We dialed it to a 6.  And it was *perfect*.  The burn left their heat on our lips, but you could still taste the delightful flavors.  Fried Thai basil garnish added another level of flavor. The fish was sliced into thick sticks and lightly fried, giving them a slight crunch on the outside to contrast with their sweet soft interior.  Sauteed peppers accompanied the fish, which along with its light tangy sauce, sat lovingly on a bed of rice noodles.  The noodles were sweet, soft, and heavenly.  Oh.Yeah.Baby!  It was a symphony of flavors and textures that sang a happy, happy song in my mouth!

Whetting Your Whistle

After checking in, we became sickenly aware of the Martini-fest ocurring in Las Vegas.  Our second goal of the day, having gotten our Thai fix, was to find a nice place to sit, relax, chat and have a drink.  We wandered Mandalay Bay in search of a lounge and finally settled on a little place right off the casino floor.  It had some trendy name, but nothing memorable.  We looked at the bar menu.  Hmmm…. maritini this, martini that, more martinis than the Sex and the City gang could ever dream of consuming!  And at a whopping $18 a pop.  Hmmm…. No thanks.  Moving on.

We wandered around some more and then finally headed to the Verandah Bar and Lounge at the Four Seasons.  Filled with dark woods and cushion-y seats, it definitely was an upgraded, old charm feel as compared to those lounges found in Mandalay Bay.  The bartender was very kind and offered his recommendations of… MARTINIS!  Yep, they too had a big ol’ martini menu.  While in Rome, and during happy hour where martinis are half price, we thought, why not?!  Hubby had the pear martini while I went adventurous and attempted the bruschetta martini.  The pear drink was fruity and tasty, but the bruschetta martini only had the aftertaste of tomato and the full-bodied taste of unleaded…. lead.  Or vodka.  Your pick.  I did enjoy the tomato juice that the bartender gave to drink alongside it.

Service Without A Smile

Fast forward to dinner.  Again, this is an adult vaca. So we chose a place that isn’t kid-friendly — Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier. (Although, there were a few very well behaved children with their parents. )  I read good things about it, and while it was an upscale place with upscale food, I loved the idea of sitting more casually at the bar.  Plus, they serve oodles of foie gras — a favorite of my adorable hubby.

First impression was mixed.  The place is dark, clean, modern with splashes of red.  The bar surrounds the open kitchen, with its clean well-dressed and OCD-ish chefs quietly hurrying to put out plates of perfectly coifed food.  On the flip side, the hostess and server immediately seemed like they were put out by their jobs.  Like they were doing us a favor by being there.  In other words, we were not treated like guests.

First, a look at the beverage menu.  Guess what they specialized in?? MARTINIS!  But they had other mixed drinks — or so we thought.  Hubby ordered what he thought was a mixed drink and it turned out to be a … martini!  Having been dissatisfied with my previous Vegas drink, I decided to play it safe.  And since the wines (even by the glass) required a mortgage application, I went with a safe and inexpensive bet — Hefeweizen beer with lemon.  Cold, light, refreshing with a taste that wouldn’t interfere with other flavors.

After you place your order, they bring out the bread.  Mini baguettes, freshly baked and probably the best bread I’ve had in a long, long time!  The crust was truly crusty — not just crunchy, almost flaky but hard and crisp at the same time.  The interior was warm and soft and melted in your mouth.  We also received an amuse bouche of a poached quail egg served in a parsley sauce and cream foam.  I have never had a quail egg, but I know how difficult it can be to poach a regular egg.  These were done properly — the whites were not chewy but were fully cooked; the yolk had some runniness toward the center but rested gleefully in the creamy cooked yellow.  Very well executed, great taste.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to order it, but it set the tone of the meal — we were going to experience unusual tastes in picture-perfect foods.  Yay!

The first dish to arrive was the foie gras, which was seared to perfection and served with cherries and blanched almonds.  I’ll be honest with y’all.  I am not a huge fan of foie gras.  I can appreciate the flavors, but I don’t yearn for it.  And when we order it, I’ll have a few tastes but pretty much let the hubby enjoy his guilty pleasure.  That strategy wasn’t an easy task with this one; after one bite I realized I wanted more. LOTS more.  The large piece of foie gras had a carmelized sear on it that left a slight crispness to the contrast of the creamy-silky interior.  It didn’t taste gamey at all; the cherries were a perfect sweet addition to the plate and the almonds left a little crunch.  Deliciousness!

Next on the menu for us:  La Cebette — a white onion tart with smoked bacon and asparagus.  If heaven was a dish, it might look and taste like this. The onions were sweet and surrounded with creaminess and sprinkles of bacon lying on a cloud of crispy, flaky tart. The asparagus were laid lovingly on top.  For such a simple dish, it was truly magnificent.

Incidentally, when I say lovingly placed, I should be saying painstakingly and perfectly placed.  We kept our eye on the sous chef at the cold/salad station and watched how she placed Each.Piece.Of.Lettuce on the salads, carefully spooned on toppings, gingerly handled the ingredients, leaning over the dishes to ensure each food item was exact.  Each dish she produced was identical to the previous and impeccable!

Next we had the sliders, but this ain’t your momma’s sliders! Their “Le Burgers” are prime beef topped with seared foie gras and carmelized peppers served on perfect soft and almost sweet, freshly baked buns.  Accompanying these little bites of love were fresh french fries and a homemade ketchup-like sauce.  I’ll be honest, the fries were just ok.  But the burger.  Oh, people, the burger!!

While savoring our burgers, we noticed a dish of oysters come out to the people sitting to the right of us.  And we were… intrigued to say the least.  Turns out, the people on the right were pretty darn nice, and in chatting with them, they mentioned that they thoroughly enjoyed the oysters.  We were sold and placed our order.  And out they came — baby Kusshi oysters poached in French butter and sprinkled with herbs.  They were soft, sweet and delicious.  Don’t tell anyone — we took some of our crusty baguettes and dipped them into the “love” left lying on the platter and in the shells.  Yeah, makes mommy happy!

Despite the small plate sizes, we were plenty filled.  Perhaps, if the prices were more reasonable for mere mortals, we’d order another round of sliders, but we are just regular folk.  So we finished off with a cheese plate.  To be honest, I know I enjoyed it — heck, I’ve hardly met a cheese I haven’t liked!  But it wasn’t overly memorable.  I believe it was four or five “slices” or samplings of various cheeses.  I wish I could say more, but I can’t.

The biggest disappointment was the service.  Here we were at a four-diamond restaurant, and the service was no better — and maybe even worse — than what you’d find at Joe Shmoe Chain Restaurant.  We waited what seemed to be an eternity for our drinks, while watching others get theirs.  In fact, we were beginning to think they lost our drink order.  When we wanted more of something, it was practically impossible to flag down anyone — not just our server, but any of the multitude of servers lingering around behind the bar.

Our server had no interest in discussing or suggesting.  Indeed, when the cheese course came, he hardly mumbled a few notes about each cheese and took off.  We’re no cheese course virgins. Usually, you get some background info about the cheese and suggestions on which to try first; you want to start mild and work your way to the more pungent cheeses.

But the indifference was the tip of the iceberg.  We were accidentally served someone else’s amuse bouche, and when the server realized his mistake, he pulled it away (it was already sitting in front of us) AND THEN SERVED IT TO ANOTHER PATRON. We hadn’t tried it yet, but it was right in front of our faces. Yuck!  I’d hate to think other people were sniffing and breathing in *my* food…  <shiver of disgust>

The design of the place also added to the clumsy service of the plates.  The way the bar is situated, the servers must reach over the bar to place the foods in front of you.  As a result, our servers almost knocked our drinks over and seemed a bit nervous about getting the plate down correctly.  Not the upscale experience at all.

Overall, the food was amazing and I am so glad to have had the chance to eat at L’Atelier.  For their excellent execution and presentation, we say Bravo! to the brilliant chefs, all of whom worked hard (we could see it!) to make our dining experience top notch.  Unfortunately, the apathetic service left a bad taste in our mouth, and we won’t be returning.

Voulez Vous Frangria?

What do you do when the kids aren’t around and you are on vacation?  Sleep in, of course!  So by the time breakfast had arrived, it was more like lunch. Sure, we could have grabbed a quick bite and headed to the pool, but we’re foodies and this is Vegas and we weren’t wasting a meal!  So off we went to Mon Ami Gabi, which I’d say was the home run winner of the vacation.

To our delight, the hostess happily obliged our request and sat us inside (to get the benefit of air conditioning on that very hot day), just under the arch leading outside, facing the Bellagio fountains.  Can you say “w00t” boys and girls?!

Next woot alert was the beverage choice. Yep, we were offered the martini menu, but hubby was intrigued by their Frangria — their French version of Sangria had red wine, white wine, Grand Marnier, oranges, grapes and rosemary.  I held my order pending his drink… the drink arrives on the mound, the taster takes a sip…. and IT’S OUTTA THE PARK!  Slightly sweet, tangy, cool, refreshing.  In the land of martinis, it was the perfect drink!

Mon Ami serves fresh bread and butter with their lunches.  As a bread-aholic, this is more good news.  The baguette was very good, but not nearly as crust-a-licious as Joel’s bread.  Still, I happily partook.

First course was Sea Scallop Gratinees, which was a platter of six shells, each filled with a scallop, caramelized fennel, onion marmalade and mussel cream.  It was baguette-sopping good!  The fennel and onion were sweet, soft with just the hint of licorice lingering in each bite.  The scallop was sweet and soft and perfectly cooked.

We split the Maison Combo as our main course selection.  The combo included a succulent short rib grilled cheese (you won’t find plastic, yellow  cheese in this baby!), a cup of Gazpacho, and frites.

Let’s start with the surprise — the Gazpacho.  I love hot bubbling soups (in fact, I usually partake in Mon Ami’s cheese-alicious French Onion Soup), but I generally don’t care for their cold cousins.  In fact, we had surmised it would receive the polite taste and then sit lonely and full to the top on our plates.  But this, dear friends, was delightful.  Smooth, a bit spicy, and filled with robust vegetable flavor.  I definitely enjoyed it, and we finished the whole thing.

The grilled cheese was fabulous — the bread was fried crispy-yumminess on the outside, but light and airy golden brown and delish, not heavy fried and greasy.  The sandwich oozed yummy French cheese — probably Gruyere — and was studded with melt-in-your mouth chunks of short rib.  With each bite I enjoyed it more, and soon grew saddened as I watched my incredibly shrinking sandwich.  (And thought to myself, “Why did I want to *share* this?!)

I love Mon Ami Gabi’s frites (aka French Fries).  They really don’t need to be *that* good.  They are strips of thin potatoes fried to creamy-crispy-salty goodness.  You could bring me a huge bowl of these babies any day, any time.  In fact, “Mr. Gabi” could teach Mr. Robuchon a thing or two!

Generally, I am not a huge fan of dessert.  I’m way happier with a hunk of bread and butter or meat or cheese or pasta or…  You get the idea.  This meal had been way too perfect,  and just we weren’t ready for it to end, so we checked out the dessert menu.  Before long we settled in with a pick — the Peach Parfait.  By no means is this a life-altering dessert or anything fancy or complicated.  It was, though, a truly delightful way to end a fabulous lunch:  A big ol’ scoop of fresh french vanilla ice cream, a scoop of fresh whipped cream, strawberries and peaches  piled on top and all around, with a sprinkle of slivered almonds thrown in for good measure.  We shared a lovely glass port with it.

All the while, we people watched, chatted, enjoyed the Bellagio fountains, laughed…   I like Mon Ami Gabi because it’s a classy but casual place.  You can sit back, relax, enjoy, and laugh out loud while enjoying some really good, tasty food.  The servers are great, too.  Happy to make suggestions, eager to help, attentive but not in your face/personal space.

And did I mention the Frangria?! People, trust me on this one — get the pitcher!

(Honorable mention:  Please use the restrooms around the corner before you leave… even if you don’t have the need.  The French lessons are laugh-out-loud entertaining!)

Steaking Our Claim

Our first dinner in Vegas was to be Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak, but when we got there sans reservations (that whole throw-caution-to-the-wind-we-don’t-have-the-kids thing in play), the wait seemed too long and we were too hungry, so we did L’Atelier.  (Oddly enough, we later learned that Bill Clinton was there that night — probably taking up *our* seats!  We heard he was incredibly kind, friendly, and a great guest.  Bummer.  Would have LOVED to had dinner the same time/place Bill was dining!)  So we tried again on Night No. 2, and promptly secured two seats at the end of the bar.

The bartender was a kind, chatty fellow, who acted as our waiter and our barkeep.  He recommended a red wine for us (although he noted his martini-making expertise),  served up some sweet soft rolls that just melted in our mouths, and showed us the menu.  I had been planning this meal in my head, having had the pleasure of dining there last year.  So I was quite disappointed to hear they recently changed up their offerings.  One of the victims of this slaughter was the soft polenta with blue cheese, and this darkened my heart.  If you ever have the pleasure of finding this gem on the menu, order it.  In fact, order two servings and send one my way!  The blue cheese polenta is creamy, sharp, deep, gooey, silky… it is the ultimate gourmet comfort food.  And pairs exquisitely with rib eye.  But I digress…

After using the brown paper bag to catch my breath, we narrowed down our selections:  Fresh Buffalo Mozarella as an appetizer, the rib eye steak, sauteed spinach, and roasted garlic and leek gratin.

A note about Craftsteak:  You won’t find fancy, fussy food here.  It’s all about simple dishes, simply yet perfectly prepared.  For instance, when you order a veggie, it’s that veggie with a few seasonings to bring out its essence.  And that’s it.  Plain and simple and yummy.

The mozarella was served with a drizzle of basalmic and some crushed hazel nuts.  It was very good, but didn’t change my life.

The rib eye was fantastic.  The chefs at Craftsteak know their meat, and this was cooked to perfection — medium rare, excellent grill marks, tender and juicy.  It was a bone-in, but the bone was tiny and, therefore, a disappointment.

The spinach was great and hit the spot — especially since we had pretty much skipped our veggies the past few days.  The gratin was a bit disappointing.  The potatoes were a bit firm for my liking (almost a raw-crisp), and it wasn’t very garlicky or leek-y.  In fact, the seasoning was bit off, even lacking your basic S&P.

My other Craftsteak obsession is their bread pudding.  Oh my, last year it was so sinfully delish that I wanted to dive into it and take a nap in its warm, yummy, softness.  Alas, that also had been recently removed from the menu.  But since I was jonesing for *something*,  I opted for their monkey bread with banana ice cream.  Bravo, Mr. Colicchio!  Well done!  Bits of pecans were sprinkled around the sweet (but not sickingly sweet) balls of dough. The sweet spheres were tender yet chewy on the inside with a slight sugary crispness on the outside.  The ice cream wasn’t overloaded with banana flavors, rather it had a hint of banana.  And it was a perfect cool and creamy accompaniment to the warm, cinnamony monkey bread.

Hubby, ever the chocoholic, opted for the mini chocolate souffle with pistachio ice cream. The ice cream was fabulous!  He enjoyed the souffle, but it was overly chocolatey for me.  (Yes, despite the odd looks from family and friends, I do believe desserts *can* have too intense of a chocolate taste.)

Overall, we enjoyed our dinner, but it wasn’t earth-shattering or overly memorable, as you can see by the comments.  I wouldn’t discount it’s worthiness, but I wouldn’t put it in my top 5 necessary stops during my next visit to Vegas.  Of course, if the polenta and/or bread pudding is on the menu, I’d at least stop by to say hello.  I mean, it’s the polite thing to do, right? 😉

Mangia, Bella! Ciao, Amore!

I’d be hard-pressed to say  I was a *huge* fan of Mario Batali.  I simply adore Italian cooking and food, and I’ve always been impressed with his respect for Italy and the food history there.  He tends to come off as being a bit too snobby for my liking.  I mean, it’s one thing for the French to seem stuck-up, but Italian is supposed to be accessible, welcoming family comfort food.

Nevertheless, I’ve wanted to visit one of his restaurants for a while, but never quite made it before.  All I can say is:  Shame on me!

Based on reviews,  we originally we going to try Carnevino Italian Steakhouse.  Unfortunately, we can only eat one dinner a night, and those slots were already taken, so we decided to lunch at Enoteca San Marco, the semi-casual place sitting in a main courtyard at the Venetian.  This was our last meal in Viva Las Vegas, and we couldn’t have chosen a better place for a farewell feast.

The people watching and oddness factor levels were high.  Flocks of tourists swarm the Piazza San Marco, exploring the expensive shops, awaiting their Gondola rides down the faux Venetian waters.  And then there are the “Venetian Living Statues”  — performers pretending to be statues, moving ever so slightly to pose with you, make a funny gesture, and the like.  Very amusing.

Service here was great!  The waiter was knowledgeable and helpful, attentive but not smothering.  He suggested a lovely red wine to accompany our lunch, and also guided our food selections.  For the antipasti, we selected three cheeses Robiola Bosina (a creamy cheese made from cow and sheep milk), Pecorino Fiore Sardo (a firm, slightly smokey and aged sheep’s milk cheese) and Baita Friuli (an aged, firm, mild cow’s cheese).  They were served with three plates of accompanients — honey infused and studded with truffles, cherries infused with liquor, and reconstituted apricots.  Unlike our L’Atelier cheese experience, our waiter chatted with us about the different cheese, explaing which was more mild, how they were prepared, etc.  It was a lovely (and by lovely, I mean sinfully delicious!) experience.

Interestingly, we did have some bread served prior to the arrival of the cheeses.  The bread came out fully wrapped in a paper,  which almost makes it seem like it was bought elsewhere, maybe even yesterday.  It seemed overly casual and odd for such a place. The bread itself was good — not heavenly, not jaw dropping, but good.

We knew we wanted a meat dish and a pasta dish, and after some discussions with our server, we narrowed our selections down to gemelli with house sausage and broccoli rabe and the braised pork shoulder served with averna apple reduction and a cucumber “salad”.

The pasta was outstanding.  I doubt the gemelli was made in-house, but it was cooked to al dente perfection.  The sausage was robust in flavor, meaty, almost spicy and very tender.  You know how sometimes you get a chewy piece in a sausage? Not here.  If a sausage could melt in your mouth, this would be the one to do so.  The rabe was probably boiled/shocked, as it was tender but not crunchy and still brilliantly green.  The sauce had a parmesan taste and a velvet-y feel in your mouth without feeling heavy, as so many cream sauces can do.  I could have  easily finished the entire thing myself, but we were sharing, so about half-way through we switched plates.

And then there was the pork shoulder.  You could taste the apple in the sauce, like you had freshly pulled a ripe apple off the tree and took a bite of it while eating the dish.  The sweetness came from the apple itself, not some syrupy-fake taste or added sugar feel.  The pork was tender and juicy, slightly carmelized on the outside and sinfully soft on the inside.  The cucumbers were incredible!  Dressed in just a bit of vinegar, tossed with a bit of mint chiffonade and incredibly thin slices of hot pepper, it was the perfect tart, acidic, spicy yet cool crunch to the warm, almost sweet and buttery meat.

If we weren’t facing four-plus hours sitting in the car, I’d probably would have tried one of the many gelato concoctions, which all looked fabulous.  But I was already filled to the brim of Italian yumminess, and I didn’t want to end my fantastic foodie vacation with car sickness.

So, with heavy hearts and  very satiated tummies, we said Ciao to our Bella Las Vegas.

… Until next time!

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August 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment